It’s an exciting time to be a filmmaker. Amazing tools, amazing prices. There’s a funny thing about having many wonderful options though—it can lead to unhappiness. Studies show that, when presented with unlimited options, people become paralyzed in their decision making. Unlimited options create the expectation of 100% satisfaction, which inevitably leads to disappointment. This is why you’ll happily watch the last three-quarters of Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever on HBO because it’s “better than what’s on Cinemax,” but you’ll leave a well-stocked video store empty-handed and depressed that there’s “nothing to watch.”
Maybe this helps explain the mixed reactions to Canon and Red’s November 3rd announcements. Both companies have, it seems, had plenty of time to assess what we wanted and just fricking make it. Both have done so, but in the process have left some of their devoted fans behind. We now have so many cameras from which to choose that it feels like there should be a perfect choice among them, but what we actually have is a more complex array of compromises to wade through than ever before.
We fell in love with the sultry, cinematic images from our HDSLRs, and then begged Canon and/or Red to fix what we didn’t like about them. They did—in spades—but in the process, they built professional cameras that are priced accordingly. You might respond with a pavlovian Click To Buy that leaves your wallet smoking like no SLR could. Or you might take a deep breath and realize that a bargain-basement DSLR is still the best filmmaking tool for your needs.
A big part of the DV Rebel strategy is to save money by repurposing tools designed for other industries. Film gear is expensive, because it’s designed for a relatively small customer base. A dirt-cheap film lighting kit is about $1,000, whereas a quartz shop light can be in the neighborhood of $50 with a stand. If you can bash or borrow a dolly from home-improvement-store parts, you’ll spend a tiny fraction of what you’d pay for a proper film dolly.
The 5D Mark II and its successors were accidental successes in cinema. They were not designed for filmmakers, but it turned out they were eminently repurposable for our needs. There’s nothing accidental about the Canon C300 and the Red Scarlet X though. They completely solve the problems with our HDSLRs, and in the process, they exit the category of commodity consumer items and join the aery echelon of proper filmmaking gear—priced accordingly.
And although the price points of each might still be considered revolutionary, they do fit into a continuum of offerings now available. Here’s a brief survey of that landscape, written from the perspective of a DSLR shooter considering an upgrade.
Red Epic M ($43,000 with PL Mount)
I list this here only for comparison and context. To upgrade from a DSLR to an Epic is not an organic transition by anyone’s measure. I’ve never owned a car that costs this much.
Canon C300 ($20,000 list, $15,999 street)
As I write this, the exact price of the Canon EOS C300 is still not clear—nor did it seem to be a planned part of the camera’s elaborate launch. When Mike Seymour asked the panel at the end of the event, the answer was simply “$20,000.” Later, this figure seemed less set in stone. Canon’s Larry Thorpe said to dpreview:
At the moment we’re still working out the details. The list price is around $20,000 but it be another month or so [before details are finalized].
Canon could have used a dash of Apple showmanship at this lavish event. Remember the days leading up to the iPad announcement? Rumors swirled that the tablet device would cost $1,000. When Jobs announced that it started at $499, the audience cheered (even though many of them would go on to buy the most expensive model, priced at $829). Apple fans and detractors alike imagined that Apple themselves may have spread the $1,000 rumors, in a brilliant context-setting strategy pulled straight from Predictably Irrational.
The street price of the C300 matters, because the most common reaction to the $20,000 price is that it’s way too high. More nuanced reactions are that it’s a perfectly reasonable price, but that it may have missed its sweet spot in the market.
The C300’s Canon Log imagery has been favorably compared to footage from the Arri Alexa, a camera that doesn’t get out of bed for less than $80K. A quarter-price Alexa seems like a great deal. So what’s to complain about?
The C300’s data rate is a double-edged sword. On one hand, you can shoot to commodity CF cards and edit on a laptop without transcoding. On the other hand, 50 Mbps is the bare minimum accepted by some broadcast institutions, such as the BBC. For $20K, folks start expecting a little more than the bare minimum.
In practice, I found that the data rate of the C300 footage was ample. None of the raw footage I’ve examined suffers from significant compression artifacts. I personally like the production-ready nimbleness of compressed, industry-standard codecs. So I don’t hold this limitation against the Canon.
Similarly, some lament that the MXF-format footage is only 8-bit, rather than, say, 10-bit as is the case with the Alexa’s ProRes recordings. I think a more valid complaint is that the HDMI output of the camera is only 8 bit. The ability to record clean HD to an outboard device is a touted feature of the C300. But again, the $20K MSRP will have this kind of shooter expecting more than 8 bit.
Again, a pro of this camera crops up to dampen this con: The C300 is not a noise-free camera. Its noise is, in fact, quite lovely and cinematic. Noisy images don’t have to be as high-bit-depth as clean ones to look good. And a very gentle denoising pass can promote C300 footage to 16-bit without much loss in detail.
The C300 is crippled in ways that one would not expect from a $20,000 camera, but it is also empowered in ways usually reserved for much more expensive rigs. It uses a 4K sensor to make its HD images, meaning that all its internal processing is 4:4:4. It kills in low light and when it gets noisy, the noise looks like film grain.
But perhaps the most shocking capability of the C300 is its latitude. It’s here that the comparison with the Alexa is most surprisingly appropriate. The C300 simply has a jaw-dropping ability to hold shadow and highlight detail in the same frame. Check out this frame from Mobius, shot in near-noontime sun, with only natural light:
There are countless other examples in Vincent’s film where the cinematic look of artfully exposed desert sun fights everything I think I know about digital cinematography. About the last thing I’d ever attempt with my 5D Mark II would be a pan off a car interior out the window to a high-noon bald sky exterior. That’s pure Alexa or Epic + HDRX territory.
This, more than any other spec, has my attention. Some care a lot about spatial resolution—4K, 5K, 8K is what gets them excited. What excites me about a new camera is this kind of latitude. Most of the detractors of the C300’s price seem to be ignoring this significant achievement.
It matters to me that the C300 can use Canon lenses and use them well. It has no autofocus, but it can electronically focus EF-mount lenses.
The C300 is a strange mix of pro features and consumer limitations. There’s a huge crowd for whom it’s too much camera and certainly many for whom its not enough. I wonder if there are enough folks in between to make this camera a success.
Pros: Uses your Canon glass well, plug-and-play codec, pro video features pulled directly from successful camcorders. The only Super 35 camera with built-in ND filters. Possibly the low-light king of all cameras listed here.
Cons: No autofocus. 8-bit everywhere. Overcranking requires dropping to 720p. The price is a big f-you to the HDSLR community that welcomed Canon to Hollywood.
The Verdict: A badass camera that has stepped far enough away from the DSLR economy that it must be evaluated in a completely new context—a disappointing situation for Canon fans hoping for a “DSLR, but better.”
The Twist: We don’t actually know what this thing costs yet. (UPDATE: Yes we do.)
This is the closest analog to the C300, and it’s been out for a while. Why hasn’t it taken the world by storm? My theory is that, like the C300, it is an odd jumble of body parts, some too big and some much to small for its price-point britches.
It ships with a PL adapter, inviting you to put costly cinema lenses on it. But then it only records to a 35 Mbps codec. It has terrific latitude, but tantalizes you with an expensive option to make it even better (the S-Log upgrade costs $3860 and requires an external recording device for anything better than 8-bit 4:2:0).
Take that PL adapter off and you have the Sony mount, which is only as useful as whatever other adapter you put on it. I’m not exactly sure what kind of farm animals you have to sacrifice to get your hands on an electronic Canon adapter for this thing.
These pros and cons create such a rocky landscape that it’s hard to feel strongly one way or the other about this camera. It’s not easy to love, but it’s impossible to hate.
Pros: Pro video features. All the frame rates you’d ever want from 1 to 60. 10-bit 4:2:2 HD-SDI Output. S-Log.
Cons: 4:2:0, 35 Mbps internal codec. Overcranking requires dropping to 720p. Aperture control of Canon lenses requires an electronic adapter hand-hewn from unicorn horn. S-Log is an expensive upgrade and requires an external recorder.
The Verdict: If the C300 eats anyone’s lunch, it’s this guy’s. But maybe the opposite is also true. If you’re looking at that S-Log feature and planning on using PL or even Canon glass, why wouldn’t you consider a Scarlet instead?
The Twist: Does this camera’s modest success mean that the semi-pro Super 35 space is a fertile land yet to be properly plundered, or a barren landscape of neither here nor there?
Red Scarlet X ($14,015 with display and media)
I’m listing the package price rather than the $9,750 body-only price because all the other cameras listed include a display and batteries. And although it’s not apples-to-apples, as the other cameras do not include media, the media costs for the other cameras are negligible, while the Scarlet’s are significant.
For example, if you wanted to record an hour of footage, you could compromise and get 50 minutes of RedCode 12:1 24p 4K HD on a 64 GB SSD, which would cost you $950. Compare that with a 32 GB CF card, which will hold 80 minutes of Canon C300 footage, and cost you only $67 (probably less if you’re reading this more than 15 minutes after I posted it).
Vincent Laforet shot 18 hours of C300 footage for Mobius. At Scarlet X 4K HD 12:1, that would require enough SSD media to cover the cost of a C300 body. But Vincent, shooting to inexpensive CF cards, was able to shoot redundantly and keep a duplicate copy of all that footage for safety.
Philip Bloom recently posted a balanced take on the Scarlet. As an owner of both an Epic and a Sony F3, he’s in a good position to be realistic. What I found most illuminating was his breakdown of the costs involved in keeping the Epic turned on:
If you run JUST on Red Volts, which I do sometimes, and no AC then you will burn through those batteries like crazy. I have 12 of them which will JUST get me through the day. V mount batteries with ViewFactors V mount adaptor is the most cost effective solution. That is $700 but my IDX batteries power my EPIC for WAYYYY longer than a Red Volt. Still they are not cheap either, nor are the good chargers. Just remember 12 Red Volts=$2340 and that is without extra chargers.
Of course, you get what you pay for—the Scarlet’s footage is not just 4K, it’s also raw, meaning that you can grade it with impunity. The image quality and latitude are the same as the Epic (at matching data rates), which is worth reiterating because it feels too good to be true.
Is Red crazy for selling a camera body for $10K that does much of what its flagship Epic does? Not at all. As Jim said at their November 3 announcement, this is a way to utilize under-specced Epic electronics that they’d otherwise be discarding. But the real crazy-like-a-fox angle is probably the good old razors/blades model. The Scarlet body is a killer deal, but it uses (and/or requires) the same accessories and modules as the Epic (such as the gorgeous touch LCD included in the package price), and Red is probably doing just fine with the profit margin on those.
Cunningly, Red announced their price after Canon. Negotiators know that whoever mentions money first, loses. Apple knows that “cheaper” only means something if you have a point of comparison. Regardless of the realities of building a functional kit, the gut-level takeaway for many on November 3 was that Red announced a camera that shoots four times the resolution of Canon’s at half the price.
Never mind that most people shooting with the Scarlet will be mastering in HD. In other words, using a 4K sensor to make an HD image. Just like the C300 does.
There is also the sneaky little fact that this “Super 35” camera will not shoot 24p at a full utilization of its large sensor. To make a movie, you have to window down to 4K, which means that suddenly your Super 35 sensor, well, isn’t. The 4K window that Scarlet uses matches the Red One’s 4K though, so if that’s what you’re used to, you’ll be right at home with Scarlet.
This windowing effect increases as you up your frame rate, so while you can shoot 120 fps with your Scarlet, at that point you’re actually shooting to roughly the 2/3” sensor that Red decided not to make.
I think the Scarlet looks to be a terrific camera—but like Mr. Bloom I suspect it’s the exact right camera for something less than 100% of the people who fancy it as the exact right camera.
Scarlet is a great camera for someone who already owns an Epic or a Red One. Someone who has the data management backend (Mike and Jason insist that you’ll need a $4,750 Red Rocket card, for example) and pro accessory front end to deal with a sweet deal of a camera that demands top-quality glass and cranks out big, expensive footage. But if you’re a recent DSLR graduate, or hoping to be, beware the ancillary financial effect of joining the 4K club. This enticing battleship-gray camera body will be a small part of a very large investment.
Pros: Gorgeous image quality. The same Epic raw that is being used on major Hollywood films. Works with all Epic modules and accessories. Best overcranking rates of all cameras here.
Cons: Footage requires transcoding for most editing workflows. 4K window is where you’re going to be most of the time. Overcranking reduces the sensor size, forcing you to compensate with wider lenses. It’s easy to be fooled by the $9,750 base price. The heaviest and most accessory-wanting of all the cameras listed here.
The Twist(s): Small camera, big workflow. Try explaining to your client why your lens options change when selecting different frame rates. And good luck trusting them to properly massage all your multiple resolution shots into something they can cut.
Sony NEX-FS100U ($4,999)
If you asked a Canon HDSLR shooter what they’d be willing to pay for a proper video camera with a Super 35 sensor, no moiré, and the pro video features camcorder shooters are accustomed to, such as zebra, focus-assist peaking, and XLR audio inputs, they would probably answer somewhere around $5,000 US. And lo, we have a camera at exactly that price point, that offers all that stuff.
One wonder why we keep complaining.
As usual, it begins with data rates. The FS100 maxes out at a paltry 24 Mb/s for 24p.
The next thing we usually gripe about is frame rates. Although the FS100 will allow you to record 1080p60, it doesn’t have a “slow and quick motion” option for slightly-off frame rates. You’re stuck with the standard missionary-position speeds of 24, 30, and 60; or 25 and 50 for PAL.
As with the F3, the FS100’s Sony mount is primarily useful in that it allows adapters for many other lens types. A friend of mine just wrapped a feature using Nikon glass. Canon glass is trickier, because the lenses don’t allow manual irising. Although let’s be honest—it took me a week before I noticed that my Canon 24–70 F2.8L had been damaged and was stuck wide-open, and the only thing that clued me in was an attempt to shoot a DOF demo for fxphd.
This camera isn’t going to knock your socks off with colorimetry or latitude, but it deserves our attention for shoring up many of the shortcomings we lament in our HDSLRs without leaving the price strata that inspired its existence.
Pros: The price is right—this is what a DSLR shooter probably expects to spend when “graduating” to a proper camera. 60p recording at 1920x1080—something the F3 can’t even do.
Cons: Cheap-feeling plastic construction. Maximum 24p data rate is 24 Mb/s. No useful funky frame rates (like 22 fps for fight scenes, or 48 fps for perfect 1/2 speed slow mo). No currently-available adapter allows aperture control of Canon lenses.
The Verdict: More like this please.
The Twist: A new company has popped up to pimp this ride. Solid Camera sells a beautifully engineered cage with a built-in PL mount.
Panasonic AG-AF100 ($4,795)
I really thought we could count on Panasonic to step up, and they finally did with the AF100. Unfortunately, this camera is another confusing parade of difficult-to-weigh pros and cons.
First, there’s the Micro 4/3 sensor. Having spent some time with one of these, I’m sad to say, size matters. The AF100 is the odd-man-out in this Super 35 roundup.
Then there’s the colorimetry. With the DVX100, Panasonic popularized the idea of a “CINE-LIKE” gamma setting on a consumer camera—a flat, uniform transfer function that preserves detail and allows for creative grading. So we trust Panasonic to do what’s right in this area. But even with these settings enabled, the AF100 turns in disappointingly contrasty images.
Between the smaller sensor and the video-like images, I simply having seen anything from this camera that got me cinematically excited.
Pros: Any frame rate you like between 1 and 60 fps at 1920x1080. There is a lovely electronic Canon adaptor available for this mount from Redrock Micro. Internal ND filters. Pro video features.
Cons: Micro 4/3 sensor is smaller than Super 35 by a meaningful amount. Contrasty, low dynamic-range images.
Canon 5D Mark II ($2,370)
The only camera to attempt to dethrone the full-frame 24p glory of the 5D Mark II is the not-yet-available 1D X, which will cost significantly more. The sex-appeal king is still the sex-appeal king.
By “full-frame” I of course mean a stills full-frame, which is 8-perf 35mm run horizontally. The standard for celluloid stills, this format was rare in cinema. The extra real-estate means that, in broad terms, lenses are wider, DOF is shallower, and pixels are bigger.
While not strictly necessary for by-the-book “cinematic” depth of field, the double-size sensor of the 5D allows you to fight off the bitter twinge of its technical shortcomings with heaping, buttery globs of shallow focus and low-light performance.
But what of this awful aliasing/moiré issue? HDSLRs in general, and the 5D in particular, are best suited for true DV Rebels—the one-man-band director/DP filmmaker who can factor this camera’s strengths into a film holistically. This shooter can reject wardrobe she knows will alias, re-stage a shot to frame out the sizzling rainbow of a cobblestone road, and block a scene to emphasize sultry soft backgrounds rather than poorly-rendered detail.
The DV Rebel also controls post, so when she brings home footage that sparkles and moirés like mad, she can knuckle down and fix it by hand (don’t let anyone tell you a plug-in can do this).
These are luxuries on which a pro shooter cannot rely. I’d hate to be in a position of saying “he can’t wear that” or “we can’t get this angle” to a paying client.
But when it’s just me and I want sexy cinema to spare, I reach for my 5D Mark II.
Pros: Full-frame 35mm sensor yields cinematic DOF from even slower lenses. Images that make you want to lick the screen. A world-class stills camera in its off hours.
Cons: Aliasing and moiré. No 720p overcrank option—max frame rate is 30 fps. Poor quality HDMI output. Fragile connectors. Video features are outclassed by much less expensive Canon HDSLRs.
The Twist: A company called Mosaic Engineering makes an add-on optical alti-aliasing filter for the 5D Mark II called the VAF-5D2. This filter snaps on non-destructively over your actual sensor and eliminates moiré and aliasing by scattering the light just before it hits the photosites. This process is relatively seamless once the filter is installed, although there are a few limitations. The examples are compelling, even if the company itself is oddly antisocial. I contacted Mosaic Engineering for additional information and received no response. Other blogger/shooters I know received a similarly cold response from the company.
The Verdict: The DV Rebel’s love affair with the camera that started the party has not flagged over the three years of HDSLR madness. The perfect camera for the DOF-obsessed shooter whose only client is himself.
Canon Rebel T3i ($659)
Perspective time: This camera body, which shoots 24p on a Super 35 sensor, costs less than 20 minutes of recording media for the Scarlet X.
Welcome back to the DV Rebel land of repurposing. This near-bottom-of-the-line camera, that actually has the word Rebel in its name, has the most up-to-date video features of any Canon DSLR save the 1DX.
I’ve got a full blog post coming on this little camera, but in short, the articulating LCD and video crop mode make this bargain body the best low-cost choice for those willing to work around the limitations common to all HDSLRs. If you were looking for the 7D or the 60D on this list, they’ve been replaced by this little guy. I know, crazy.
Pros: Articulating LCD that you can still use with a Zacuto Z-Finder. Movie crop mode. Chiggity-cheap.
Cons: No pro video features. Aliasing and moire. Controls a bit more fussy than those on the 60D or 5D Mark II. Limited frame rates, 50/60 fps only at 720p.
The Verdict: What a time to be alive.
The Twist: If we’re going to talk about the ancillary costs of the Red Scarlet, we should do the same for any HDSLR. Factor things like a Zacuto Z-Finder and a follow-focus rig (such as the Redrock Micro Captain Stubling or EyeSpy Deluxe) into your purchase plans for even the cheapest Canon body.
The Twisty Twist: For the adventurous, the Magic Lantern firmware hack is available for the T3i. It adds exposure zebras, focus peaking, false color overlay, waveform monitor, bit-rate control, and even a built-in intervalometer for time lapse.
In every movie about a mousy girl with glasses and a ponytail, there’s the “friend” who helps her with her makeover, and then gets snubbed when the transformation is, surprise, a huge success. In this case, we, the HDSLR community, are the friend. We helped get the Canon and Red cameras we love so much to clear up their complexion, throw on some contact lenses, and let their hair down. And now we’re standing here with our Zacuto dinguses and our Redrock doohickeys in our hands while the newly-gorgeous cameras are twirled around Tinseltown by the Handsome Quarterback.
All filmmakers are on a journey, and that journey is going to take you through many cameras. It’s dangerously easy to get swept up in advancing technologies, and all-too tempting to think that a new camera will slingshot your filmmaking forward.
The real tricky thing is that this is actually true—sometimes. There are moments when the capabilities of a new camera are exactly what we need creatively. How do you know when this is? A good indication is when you’ve repeatedly run up against the limitations of your current camera.
In other words, shoot, don’t spend, your way into your camera upgrade.
There are wonderful cameras at almost every price point. So don’t let any one new camera change your idea of how much you should be spending on gear.
See also: Pictures and Clarity (November 2008)